For years, we have needed a carefully designed, book-length comparative study of religion within social movements at opposite ends of the political spectrum of the United States. We need to wait no more. This book delivers in spades on the analytic promise of that project. Braunstein is part of a new generation of sociologists who combine expertise in the sociology of religion and other subfields (for Braunstein, cultural sociology and social movements). The resulting work enriches our understanding of religion in society and inspires other subfields to reconsider their marginalization of religion. The book systematically and symmetrically compares two groups as they organized from 2010 to 2012 in the northeastern United States. The “Patriots,” a Tea Party-affiliated group located in a medium-sized city and its suburbs, organized mostly white residents and included significant albeit constrained religious diversity. “Interfaith,” a faith-based community organizing group located in a large city and affiliated with the PICO National Network (currently rebranding itself Faith in Action), organized racially diverse urban residents from a broad spectrum of congregations. The Patriots fall politically on the right and Interfaith on the left, but such a simplistic placement covers up the fascinating ways in which the two groups overlap and diverge in sociologically important ways. The book advances two core arguments. First, despite their divergent political stands, the two groups shared core concerns that common people had been left behind before and during the Great Recession and that the democratic process had failed to address that marginalization. Both saw “active citizenship” as the solution to those realities, and both invoked religion and sacred sources of meaning in their efforts to exert active citizenship and hold political officials accountable. Second, in doing so, the two groups diverged in sociologically crucial ways that were patterned by their underlying “democratic imaginaries” and group styles. The book showcases the analytic advantages of carefully designed “multisite comparative ethnography.” This is a demanding approach, but it can be analytically powerful if the researcher: (1) chooses sites that allow key dynamics of interest to vary while holding other factors steady; and (2) draws on careful comparative logic across cases, disciplined by a strong theoretical framework (here via concepts such as active citizenship, civil religion, democratic imaginaries, group styles, and covenantal vs. contractual understanding of social bonds). Braunstein’s work offers a model for research design in this mode to future researchers. The book offers readers fascinating insight into the parallel and contrasting religio-cultural dynamics of two groups apparently residing in separate moral universes. Interfaith’s religious underpinnings are framed within the organization’s priority on religious inclusion, whereas the Patriots’ religious underpinnings are framed by a commitment to religious liberty. This distinction both reflects deep differences in democratic imaginaries and also drives stark differences in the two groups’ comfort with religious pluralism, particularly vis-à-vis Islam. The book misfires in a few relevant details (portraying evangelicals as mostly uninvolved in Interfaith-style organizing when she means white evangelicals; noting political passivity driven by deference to politicians, experts, and other elites without mentioning deference to corporate elites and media stars). But these are quibbles at the edge of an exemplary work of sociological analysis and clear thinking. More substantively, in our current political moment, the closing message of the book rings over-optimistically: “Alternatively, if groups are encouraged to bring competing narratives—even those perceived as extreme and troubling—into public view, then citizens have the opportunity to evaluate them side by side and deliberate about their merits and dangers.” Therein lies important democratic hope, but stories also have consequences: regardless of intentions and even if the Tea Party narrative inspires impressively active citizenship, a story built on sacralizing an exclusionary and mythical past has a deeply anti-democratic impact on some groups and may yet undermine democracy more broadly. Ultimately, the book shines in complicating our prevailing understandings of what divides groups on opposite sides of the political spectrum, as well as by offering surprising new insight into the role of religion in contemporary public life, the cultural underpinnings of democratic practice at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and the contested nature of American democracy and citizenship. Braunstein shows how religion can undergird quite different democratic narratives, one a declensionist fall-from-grace story that sacralizes the nation’s founding, the other a story that adapts the biblical prophetic tradition to a never completely fulfilled but constantly renewed promise of full democratic inclusion. Yet both lead to vibrant practices of active citizenship—albeit with starkly differing political implications. Despite the book’s origins in a dissertation, it is fluidly written with a central argument that runs seamlessly throughout. As a result, it will teach very well at the undergraduate level. Yet its strong theoretical structure means it will also shape the advanced scholarly conversation on how religion shapes politics and teach very fittingly at the graduate level. Braunstein’s impressive fieldwork, analytic rigor, and fine writing will illuminate the next generation of scholars and students of public religion in America. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Sociology of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: May 4, 2018
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